Using Smartphones to Treat Drug Abuse


Using Smartphones to Treat Drug Abuse

Researchers are working to develop technology that will allow smartphones to help addicts deal with drug cravings.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) are combining a variety of technologies, such as artificial intelligence, smartphone programming, biosensors and Wi-Fi, to develop the iHeal, which will be able to detect physiological stressors associated with drug cravings and respond with behavioral interventions.


Edward Boyer, MD, PhD, professor of emergency medicine and lead author of the study, worked with colleagues at UMMS

and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to design the mobile device.


It uses “enabling technologies” that could help make behavioral interventions for substance abusers more effective outside the clinic or office environments. The iHeal combines sensors to measure physiological changes and detect trigger points for risky health behaviors, such as substance use, with smartphone software tailored to respond with patient-specific interventions.


Individuals with a history of substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder were asked to wear an iHeal sensor band around their wrists. The device measures the electrical activity of the skin, body motion, skin temperature and heart rate, which are all indicators of stress.


The band wirelessly transmits information to a smartphone, where software applications monitor and process the physiological data.


When the software detects an increased stress level, it asks the user to input information about their perceived level of stress, drug cravings, and current activities. This information is then used to identify drug cravings and deliver personalized drug prevention interventions precisely at the moment of greatest physiological need, according to the researchers.

An initial analysis of the iHeal, including feedback from users, suggests a number of technical issues related to data security, as well as the need for a more robust and less stigmatizing version before the device could be worn in public, researchers note.


Preliminary data about the multimedia device was recently published online in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.


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